The Supreme Court on Friday reserved its order on the bail plea filed by former Finance Minister P. Chidambaram in the INX Media case against the Central Bureau of Investigation. The hearing in the top court concluded on the same day that the CBI filed its charge sheet accusing P. Chidambaram, his son Karti Chidambaram and twelve other people for several offences under the Indian Penal Code and the Prevention of Corruption Act. Solicitor General Tushar Mehta opposed the bail plea on behalf of CBI stating that the investigating agencies had “done their homework” before arresting the former Union Minister.
“The purpose of arrest is effective interrogation. Considering the position enjoyed by the petitioner (P. Chidambaram), CBI will have to be extra careful. Sometimes what is happening is more than what meets the eye” said Mehta.
He also went on to give details of the charge sheet filed by the agency in the hours preceding the hearing in the top court. A total of fifteen accused were named in the charge sheet, one of whom had turned approver. In addition to the father-son duo, the charge sheet also names Peter Mukherjea, Chartered Accountant S. Bhasakaraman, ex-NITI Ayog CEO Sindhushree Khullar, ex-Secretary Ministry of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises Anup K. Pujari, other bureaucrats and companies allegedly owned and controlled by Karti Chidambaram. The accused have been charged with offences of criminal conspiracy, the exercise of public influence for personal gratification, criminal misconduct by a public servant, cheating and forgery.
Solicitor General Tushar Mehta also told the three-judge bench of the Supreme Court that during the course of the investigation, the CBI had recorded a statement of a “key witness” in the case who had said that he was being influenced. It was this statement, said Mehta, that had led the High Court to deny anticipatory bail to P. Chidambaram in the first place. The CBI chose to keep the identity of this “key witness” confidential so as to “not expose him to more vulnerability to be pressurized or intimidated” but in clear words clarified that this witness was not Indrani Mukherjea – the accused-turned-approver.
“Sometimes the mere presence of a person is enough to intimidate someone,” Tushar Mehta said.
During the course of arguments, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta also called upon the Supreme Court to put in place a zero-tolerance policy on corruption. “We, your lordships as the Court and me as the investigating agency, need to take a call on how far we can go when it comes to being tolerant on corruption. The country needs a zero-tolerance policy on corruption” said the Solicitor General. To strengthen his case, Mehta also brought up the recent cases of people accused of economic offences fleeing the country.
“We have seen several cases of accused fleeing the country. These were also people who enjoyed a respectable position in the society and were well-known. A former Member of Parliament fled the country, your lordships!” exclaimed Mehta referring to Vijay Mallya.
Arguments tendered by the Solicitor were opposed by top Congress lawyers Kapil Sibal and Abhishek Manu Singhvi. Sibal began the rejoinder arguments by telling the Court that the merits of the case had no role to play in a bail hearing before the Apex Court of the country. “Filing of a charge sheet cannot be a ground to deny bail to an accused. A charge sheet was filed in the 2G Scam case. What happened to it? All accused were acquitted” said Sibal.
Mehta objected to the mention of the 2G case stating that the matter was sub-judice and currently under appeal before the Delhi High Court. Sibal also went on to say that P. Chidambaram had been questioned only once since the FIR was filed in 2017 and accused the CBI of either being “incompetent” or “disinterested”. He said that P. Chidambaram had appeared before the investigating agency every time he had been called and there was no question of him fleeing the country if he was let out on bail.
“My passport has been seized. There is a lookout notice against me. Since 2017, I have not travelled abroad anywhere – forget travelling, I have not even made a request to travel anywhere. Where will I flee? I am recognized all over the world” said Sibal.
Sibal also vehemently opposed the Delhi High Court order that had denied bail to the former Finance Minister stating that the only ground to deny him bail was that “it could not be ruled out that witnesses might be influenced”. “Can it ever be ruled out that witnesses might be influenced?” asked Sibal, “if that is the criteria then all accused must be incarcerated from the very beginning right till the trial because you can never rule out that witnesses might be influenced” he said. Sibal told the Supreme Court that this was all a result of the “media trial” being conducted against P. Chidambaram.
Abhishek Manu Singhvi, in the closing minutes of the hearing, told the bench that despite the CBI “passionately” alleging that P. Chidambaram was tampering with the witnesses and the evidence, no mention of it was made in the charges laid out in the charge sheet against the former Finance Minister. “This only goes on to show that the CBI themselves don’t consider witness tampering to be a serious offence. They have not even included it in the charge sheet” said Singhvi. The three-judge bench headed by Justice Bhanumati has reserved the verdict on the plea and the bench is expected to pronounce the order sometime next week. Meanwhile, P. Chidambaram is currently held in the custody of the Enforcement Directorate till October 24.